Learning About STEM and Preventing Fires

During a state-mandated earthquake drill held by Wilson High School in Los Angeles, California, and the Los Angeles Fire Department, students learn how to properly move an earthquake victim. Photo credit: Michael Sheu

After learning about fire dynamics— how fires start, spread, and develop— and doing hands-on activities with firefighters, eighth graders in Georgia’s Cobb County School District solve a virtual fire-related crime with help from an arson investigator as part of a partnership involving the district’s middle schools, the Cobb County Fire Department, and Underwriters Laboratories (UL). UL offers a free module that the district’s eighth-grade science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers use, Fire Forensics: Claims and Evidence, on its Xplorlabs online learning platform (see the unit at http://bit.ly/2lKh81k). “I saw [UL staff] at an NSTA conference and heard about UL’s fire dynamics curriculum,” recalls Sally Creel, the district’s STEM and innovation supervisor. “Our goal is to put students in contact with [workers] in STEM fields,” so partnering with UL and the fire department has helped provide students with authentic STEM learning, she observes.

“We don’t get a lot of kids wanting to fight fires,” says Sean Gray, Cobb County Fire Department captain and a member of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute’s Advisory Board. By exposing students to the UL curriculum and the roles of fire service professionals, “we hope they will be interested [in a fire service career] and stay with the community if they’re not going on to college,” he explains, adding that “the middle level is an important time to reach kids.”

Students experience “the excitement of having firefighters in their classroom,” says Creel. “The firefighters come in uniform, and we make sure to have a diverse group of firefighters” so all students can relate to the material. “The program is authentic and memorable,” she maintains.

Firefighters co-teach the lessons with teachers, and they train together to use the curriculum. “We’ve now trained 80 firefighters and 50 to 60 teachers at the middle and high school levels,” Gray reports.

The UL curriculum “is set up as a scenario, as in problem-based learning. Students have to discover what happened: an accident or arson,” Creel explains. The material also supports the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional learning because it “integrates science and engineering practices, doing research and digging into data to determine what happened,” she points out. “Fire and how it behaves [serves as] the phenomenon, and students draw conclusions based on data and UL research.”

Engineering Solutions

Michael Stecher, science teacher, and Amber Schick, English language artsteacher at Liberty Middle School (LMS) in Fargo, North Dakota, have served as team advisors for students competing in eCYBERMISSION, a web-based STEM competition for students in grades 6–9 sponsored by the U.S. Army Educational Outreach Program and administered by NSTA (www.ecybermission.com). As part of eCYBERMISSION, students identify community problems and explore science explanations and engineering solutions. This year, one LMS team focused on kitchen fires. “They realized most kitchen fires are grease fires,” says Stecher, and after polling other students about how they would extinguish those fires, “most students said they would put water on the grease fire,” which makes the fire worse. The team decided “an awareness campaign and a device was needed,” he relates.

The teachers helped the team research what products extinguish grease fires. Their first proposed prototype was a pan equipped with a device “that had a button you could press to make sand come out and put out the fire,” Stecher recalls. After further research, the team “decided that a small blanket could be [thrown over] a pan and put out the fire because it eliminated oxygen,” he reports.

Working with the West Fargo Fire Department in a controlled environment outdoors, the students tested four prototypes on a pan of burning vegetable oil to determine whether the blanket should contain sand, baking soda, or salt or if a blanket containing nothing would do the job. The students learned that baking soda and sand worked best, and the blanket containing nothing “was the worst because it didn’t have the weight to put out the fire,” says Stecher.

Schick notes that the students wanted their blanket to be reusable, but they learned “the material wasn’t flame retardant, so [the blanket] couldn’t be reused.”

The project “gave students an understanding of how to do science and how to test [prototypes] as part of the engineering design process,” Stecher maintains. “It was meaningful to them because lives could be saved, and [it provided] a community tie-in with the West Fargo Fire Department. It brought science to life in my class.”

Doing projects like this one “gives research meaning, why it’s important to research and understand the problem,” Schick contends. The project “gave them skills and expertise and was an authentic learning piece, more than just writing a paper. The students were excited and passionate, and there was 100% integration with my subject— the best way to do research.”

Firefighting Technology

Wilson High School in Los Angeles, California, offers a Firefighter Academy Magnet in collaboration with the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) for students interested in learning about a career in fire service and emergency response. As part of the magnet, chemistry teacher Deborah Wang teaches Firefighting Technology, a course covering science, technology, and research with a focus on firefighting. “It’s nice to integrate occupations like firefighters. It can bring more interest and relevance to students,” she observes.

The course is open to all Wilson students. “Some students want to learn more about [firefighting] careers; others take it as an elective requirement,” Wang explains.

Firefighting Technology also covers engineering, history, architecture, and philosophy; “it’s an interdisciplinary study through a firefighting lens,” says Wang. Her students learn about architecture by studying building codes and determining whether they comply with fire codes. “We mapped our school’s building plan [and wondered] how we could get water to the fourth or fifth floor,” Wang recalls.

Students learn “the history of how [firefighting] technology has progressed. [Firefighters] used to have only water and buckets, then fire extinguishers,” Wang relates. During World Wars I and II, firefighters “learned that carbon tetrachloride was not good to use in fire extinguishers because it damages the lungs…Now there are high-tech fire extinguishers with less harmful chemicals.”

She continues, “Because we work with the [LAFD], they give us uniforms and field trips…[For example,] I took my ninth graders to the [LAFD] Museum last year. It [gave them] background for my class [when they saw] the museum’s artifacts.” Her students also worked with the LAFD to do a fire inspection.

The firefighter magnet is valuable, according to Wang, because “the field for first responders and firefighters is really rigorous. Having more candidates who are better prepared is important for the field’s future and the safety of our communities.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best teacher of science  you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of member newspaper, NSTA Reports (www.nsta.org/publications/nstareports.aspx). Editor of Freebies for Science Teachers (www.nsta.org/publications/freebies.aspx) and NSTA Calendar (www.nsta.org/publications/calendar) pages. Follow me on Twitter: @Debra_NSTA
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